Thursday, March 29, 2012

Class Pet

My class got a class pet today. Actually, it's more like thousands of pets.

And next week we're going to eat a portion of their dead bodies.

What could our pets be and what do they have to do with cooking (besides that we'll end up eating their carcasses)? Have you figured it out yet? Did you know all along?

Barb brought in some sourdough starter today and we're going to mix it and feed it and I'm even going to bring it home with me over the weekend. Seriously. It needs to be stirred daily, and fed on a schedule. Taking care of sourdough starter is as much of a commitment as having a pet snake.

I have never kept a starter before; I've never even tried. But after school today I spent half an hour surfing the web looking for advice about how to bake bread in a dutch oven or in a pot on a stove top. I want to simulate what bread baking would have been like for the pioneers. It is likely that I won't have time to test out the recipe or the cooking technique at home before we try it in class, so next Wednesday might be...interesting.

I'm getting very good at modeling making mistakes in front of my students.

You might be thinking that to be truly authentic, we'd be making a campfire somewhere on the edge of school property. I am perfectly comfortable with fire building and cooking over a fire, having done so for years and years as a camp counselor. But I thought about trying to keep sixteen energetic bodies out of the fire while simultaneously making sure the bread didn't burn. It didn't seem like a wise venture. Not to mention the conversation I'd have to have with my principal and the facilities manager. They are both very reasonable men, but open fire on school grounds would probably be pushing the limits.

So instead I'll be using a huge cast iron pot my husband has been keeping in the basement because...I really have no idea why, but it's been down there for ages.

And afterward, I'll have a couple of thousands of pets to give away to anyone who wants it. Sourdough starter needs to be fed and cared for, but also used periodically to keep its population in check. The more I think about it, having sourdough starter is some kind of a wacky cross between a pyramid scheme and a chain letter.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Apple Ring Wrap Up

Remember those apples we had drying on the handy-dandy drying line I strung up behind my desk? We started them on a Wednesday afternoon and by the next Monday morning they were dry, dry, dry and ready to eat. A few kids helped me pull them off on Monday afternoon and we ate them for snack on Tuesday. Kids ate and liked them, but they didn't get rave reviews.

That's okay, because chemistry crept in.

Our chemistry unit is over, but that doesn't mean I won't take an opportunity to remind my class that chemical reactions are continuing to happen around us all the time. In this case, it was the apple bits that weren't big enough to hang on the lines I strung. I spread them out on a baking pan figuring I'd leave them to dry for as long as it took instead of dumping them in the compost.

But there's no way I'm feeding this to my students:

Do you see the dark outline around many of the apple bits? Here, look a little closer:

Some are flipped over, because I showed them to the class and asked what they thought caused the discoloration. Many kids were so sure the apples had molded that they saw fuzziness on the apples that wasn't even there! Some of those same kids had a hard time letting go of their initial hunch, even when I pointed out that the discoloration was on the underside, and if mold had been trying to grow, wouldn't it grow on top of the apple slices? (Although in fairness, if they don't understand that mold would start its growth because of spores that had landed on the fruit, how could they understand my logic?)

I proposed the hypothesis that the apples that touched the pan had reacted chemically with the metal of the baking pan. Color change = indicator of chemical reaction. This got a conversation started about whether apple rings would discolor if we had laid down plastic wrap, tinfoil, waxed paper, etc. I am hoping to get some more apples from our kitchen and set up an experiment just because we could, but we have had art projects and field trips, so the past two weeks have not offered up the time to do so. Luckily, there's always next week. It may have felt like summer last week, but we have many days to go before our year is over.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Frying Pan Bread

The pioneers didn't plan their meals around My Plate, the food pyramid, or the four food groups. They weren't constantly tempted by prepackaged food and a ridiculous array of junk food, so they probably didn't need dietary guides like we all do. But since my students have had a fair amount of instruction around My Plate this year, I started Thursday's lesson by asking table groups to make a quick My Plate diagram and fill it in with the foods they thought the pioneers would have eaten while they were traveling west. I was pleased with how each group got to work and the thoughtful discussions they had.

After five minutes or so, groups shared with the class while I recorded their thinking on the white board. We got to grains, and someone mentioned bread.

"Would they have packed bread in their covered wagons?" I asked.
The consensus was no.
"Could they bring flour and bake bread in an oven?"
Again, no.
(I know that you can bake bread products in a dutch oven, and I hope we can play around with this kind of baking in a future week, but for now, we left it with the idea of no ovens.)

Next I handed out recipes for a cowboy frying pan bread. We split up into three groups, each one led by an adult: me, Colleen, or Su. Groups read over the recipe, washed hands, and then got to work mixing.

The recipe is a simple one, and I hadn't tried it ahead of time, so it will be no surprise that it was a little trickier than it sounds, even when cooked on a hot plate instead of over an open fire. For one, the recipe directed users to add "just enough" water to form a dough. You gotta love the precision! My group and one other added a bit more than "just enough" and had to dump some extra flour in to keep the dough from getting too sticky. No problem, since more flour created a slightly more realistic ratio between flour and sugar -- the recipe called for 2 c flour to 1 1/2 c sugar!

We patted the dough into a pan, put it over the burners, and then the fun really started. To varying degrees (probably due to different types of pans) the dough started to darken and needed to get flipped, but was so, well, doughy, that one group ended up making scrambled bread! The other two cut the dough in quarters in the pan to make it easier to flip.

Ultimately it came off the heat, was dressed with butter and honey, and eaten happily. With so much sugar in the dough, of course it tasted good, bit in my mind, not such a realistic recipe. I doubt the pioneers would have squandered that much of their precious sugar for a daily bread recipe. Next time I do this, I'll look around for another recipe, maybe even one that I try ahead of time...

P.S. In case anyone was worrying, I got the dishes all cleaned up Friday during the day and the pans weren't that bad after an overnight soaking.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Taking A Deep Breath

The cooking part of my classroom is a total mess.

This afternoon our class attempted/made cowboy fry bread. It took longer than I thought (post about the full lesson coming soon) and then I had to leave school just after 3:00 to get to my daughter's parent/teacher conference one town over from where I teach.

I left behind 20 unwashed plates, almost as many forks, and three fry pans that are going to need some serious attention even though they're currently soaking in soapy water.

Why I am posting about this?

For anyone who knows me, it comes as no surprise to hear me describe myself as a type-A, detail oriented person. Over the years I have learned I am learning how to take a breath and deal with whatever comes my way. My learning has been facilitated by maturity that goes with the aging process, the reality of working with children, the reality of being a working parent, and a healthy dose of yoga every now and then.

So the fact that I was able to leave behind the mess of dishes instead of crazily trying to wash them all in ten minutes or less speaks to growth in coping with my innate type-A tendencies. This blog has been, in part, a way for me to record my professional growth this year, and I hope everyone would agree that knowing when it's okay to shrug your shoulders and “let it go” is important growth for anyone working with children.

Especially pre-adolescents in the springtime.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

MacGyver Goes West

Last week I noticed that one student's abandoned science experiment had taken an unexpected turn. After being observed for signs of oxidation, the chunk of pepper and half a kiwi went through another change. As the water evaporated from it, it became a shriveled mss of dried pepper, and a kiwi slab, that, when we examined it today, many students mistook for a mushroom.

"What foods have you eaten in dried form?" I asked.
Kids answered: apples, cherries, cranberries.
"Anything that isn't a fruit?"
"Dried meat," one student said, and when asked, identified it as jerky.

From there we discussed why dried foods would be a good thing to bring along if you were moving west in the 1800s.

This was the kickoff for our new unit on the period of Westward Expansion. After our short discussion, I had table groups rotate through four stations. The first three were brainstorm stations. On chart paper they had to record group answers to questions:
  • Why do people move?
  • What do you think it was like moving west in the 1800s?
  • What do you wonder about the westward movement of the 1800s?
The fourth station was a collection of apples and those cool apple peeler/corer machines. My goal was to have every student peel up one apple for us to dry. I've been envisioning this for about a week, but it wasn't until ten minutes before lunchtime ended today that I looked around my room and tried to decide where to hang the fruit while it dries.

My class includes many active, exuberant types, so I needed an out of the way place. I chose behind my desk area so that the apples would be placed away from any high traffic or boisterous behavior. With only some string and a box of thumbtacks, I put together a drying lattice that I think MacGyver would be proud of.

If he was heading west. And drying fruit to get ready.

Don't concentrate on what a mess it is, please. I promise to clean it up after my parent conferences are done on Friday. Can you find the drying apparatus?

Here's a close-up, if you didn't find it in the last picture.
Check out that really awesome curlicue in the bottom right.
I know it looks like it's about to fall, but don't worry!
There's a pan underneath the whole mess just in case.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reaping the fruits?

Halloo there...

I know it's been a while and believe me, I have been teaching for the past two weeks. We've been reading graphic novels and finishing science experiments and learning new vocabulary. And I've just finished that three-times-a-year-gift-of-joy otherwise known as report cards.

But we haven't been cooking.

When I first started cooking with my class, I challenged myself to do at least one cooking/food related activity each week. Partly to make sure I didn't slack off and turn cooking into a once in a while special activity. But also, once I got started, I saw how jazzed many of my students were about cooking. And I figured if I could hook them with regularly occurring cooking projects, I could keep more of them jazzed about learning, via the cooking. Not to mention the eating. This year, my school has been focusing on how to reach and effectively teach boys who struggle with school, and the interest my boy-heavy class (11 boys and 5 girls for most of this year) showed in cooking seemed to be a good starting point.

One fifth grade boy would come in every Monday, and by mid-morning you could count on the fact that he'd ask, "What are cooking this week?" He loves cooking at home and has been a faithful follower in the learning-through-cooking focus throughout the year.

Here's the funny thing: he hasn't asked me what we're going to be cooking in the past few weeks. But he has taken on an interest in Alaska, checked out a bunch of books on the topic, and spent time reading about the far north when he's caught up on classwork. And he did decide to capture his entire science experiment on video and then work with our technology teacher to edit the video, dub in his voice, and put captions on the four and a half minute finished product. I never had to remind him when he was supposed to get down to the tech lab; he just got there and stayed there until the job was done. Even if it meant missing some of his P.E. time. Repeat: an active, social, fifth grade boy voluntary missed P.E. to work in the tech lab.

Maybe there's no connection, but I'd like to think that this particular student has deepened his interest in learning this year. And maybe, just maybe, this deepened interest started when we began cooking in the classroom.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Letting Go

I had a lovely vacation week last week, so haven't posted in a while. This week our focus was on independent chemistry experiments. Everyone developed a question or chose one of the questions off our the chart we've been adding to throughout the unit. I handed out rubrics, blank experiment forms, and gathered whatever materials kids requested.

And then I stood back.

There was some of this:

A lot of this:
And even some of this:
But there was a fair amount of this, too:And some of this...

Any teachers reading this post will likely nod their head in agreement when I say that standing back and letting your students taking the lead can be one of the hardest things about teaching. Not because we like to be in charge all the time (although most of us do), but because we want every moment to be a teaching opportunity. And when we see a kid going off track on a project, we want to jump in and steer them back on course. Sometimes they do find their way back on their own, but by our nature, we want to be the ones to help get them back where they belong.

But if it's an independent project, one that will be assessed as such, it is okay to get involved?

One sneaky thing I sometimes do is ask a student what he is doing and why. This can help the student do some needed self reflection that he might not get to on his own. Only rarely will I intervene if I've said the project is an independent one.

This round I did step in in one instance. One sixth grader returned back on Wednesday, having missed two days before vacation and two after while his family drove to Florida and back. He came back on Wednesday, but he was still on vacation, if you know what I mean. Before he left he had chosen the question: Will fruit oxidize if it's under water? The day he came back was experiment day, and he got permission to leave the room to get fruit from the kitchen and a water spritzer from our facilities manager. I was a bit disappointed that he wasn't planning to submerge the fruit, but hey, this is his experiment, not mine. I told him where the cutting board and knife was, and a few minutes later was floored to see him spritzing his fruit -- an uncut apple, an uncut kiwi, and an uncut orange! No way was anything going to oxidize with this experimental design...

The next morning I pulled him aside and asked what he remembered about the apple and potato experiment. Did we keep the produce whole? He sheepishly realized he needed to cut into his fruit and did so. I justified getting involved because he missed so many days of instruction and planning. I figured I could note that he got assistance on the experimental design, and still assess the rest of his process as independent. My involvement didn't take most of the independence away from this student; he still had to record his procedure, collect data, draw a conclusion, and figure out how to present his findings to the rest of the class.

Next week students will be working on their presentations. Most have chosen to do slideshows or prezi presentations (If you aren't familiar with prezis, you should check them out here.) We'll be presenting our findings to third and fourth grade students at the end of the week.

The week is quite full so I won't be able to fit a cooking project in, but I am already looking ahead to a Westward Expansion unit coming up later in the month. Fry bread, anyone?